Hampton Sides is a very engaging writer who has taken his readers through a number of diverse adventures. Whether hunting down James Earl Ray for the assassination of Martin Luther King; detailing the mission of US Army Rangers in January 1945 behind Japanese lines in the Philippines; ; or exploring the role of Kit Carson in the American west, Sides has always been able to break down each topic to capture the attention of his readers. His latest effort, IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE, is no exception as he tells the story of the USS Jeannette which set sail from San Francisco in July, 1879. Sides describes the origins of the voyage and its place in navigational history and he produces what might be his finest book yet.
The narrative traces the development of the idea that there was a warm water path through the Arctic ice flows that would enable an expedition to reach the North Pole. The story begins with the disappearance of the Polaris, a ship Captained by Charles Hall, that was sailing north off of Greenland in 1872 and the failed rescue mission that was attempted by the “Little Juniata,” a much smaller ship. The rescue boat had traveled over 400 miles through large chunks of ice broken off icebergs and was Captained by George DeLong, an Annapolis graduate, who upon returning to New York explained to his wife Emma what he experienced and she realized that “the polar virus was in George’s blood to stay.” (10) DeLong knew he was bitten by the “arctic fever,” and began to seek funding for a return trip to the Arctic region in search of a passage to the North Pole. As Delong planned he came in contact with a number of important and colorful characters including James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the publisher, editor in chief and sole owner of the New York Herald, the largest and most influential newspaper in the world. Bennett was also the third richest man in America and believed that newspapers should not merely report stories, but should create them. His most famous involved sending a correspondent, Henry Stanley to Africa to locate Dr. David Livingstone, which took people by storm. Bennett believed that an Arctic voyage would create even more interest and newspaper sales. Another major figure was Professor August Heinrich Petermann, a German theoretician who concluded that the Open Polar Sea Theory was valid. Petermann believed that “the ice pack as a whole forms a mobile belt on whose polar side the sea is more or less ice free.” (60) Petermann also published numerous maps of the Arctic and Siberian region and was seen as the most reliable source of information for any polar excursion. Much to DeLong’s chagrin later in the narrative, the German theorist’s ideas were all wrong resulting in disastrous consequences. Once Bennett is convinced to finance a new voyage with DeLong in command the reader follows the preparation of a new vessel that is rechristened the Jeannette (named after Bennett’s estranged sister), the detailed planning, and the choosing and training of the crew.
As a back drop to the exploratory adventure, Sides reminds the reader of the major technical and scientific advances of the day by describing the 1876 Central Exposition in Philadelphia which was attended by the likes of George Eastman, Alexander Graham Bell, George Westinghouse, and Thomas Alva Edison (whose invention, arc lighting would be a total failure during the Jeannette’s voyage). The author describes major new inventions and products including Heinz ketchup and Hires Root Beer as people came to observe from all over the world. The US Navy, politicians and the business community all favored the expedition and it became a cause célèbre in the United States.
The ship departed San Francisco on July 8, 1879 under the command of George DeLong. Its crew is made up of experts in all nautical fields and is very optimistic on departure. As the USS Jeanette steamed north toward the Bering Strait, scientists and bureaucrats digested new data from ships returning from the Arctic region, and they discerned that Petermann’s ideas that DeLong was basing his path on did not exist. “The portal DeLong was aiming for offered no real gate of entrance into the Arctic Ocean….the North Pacific Ocean, has practically speaking, no northern outlet; Bering Strait is but a cul de sac. (143) By September, 1879, DeLong realized that the “thermometric gateway to the North Pole [was] a delusion and a snare.” (162). at this point on Sides describes how the Jeanette becomes imprisoned in the ice for almost a year, though because of the ice flow the ship does not remain stagnant. The crew will remain in high spirits but ultimately when the ship is released from the ice the ship has to deal with loose chunks of ice and poor weather. DeLong is not certain of his path and sends his chief engineer, George Melville on a dangerous reconnaissance mission when land is located. While Melville is gone lead poison overtakes the crew. By June, 1880 another ship is sent by the US Navy to learn what has happened to the Jeannette. Captained by Calvin Hooper, with the naturalist John Muir as part of the crew, the USS Corwin is unsuccessful in locating the missing vessel. Circumstances become dire for the Jeannette as it is encased in ice for another year and it finally will sink in June 1881. The crew will escape and split up into three boats and make for Siberia to try and survive.
Sides is at his best as he describes the perilous journey as weather, unkind geography, and loneliness set in. The author offers a unique and often amazing description of DeLong and his crew as they sail and trek across the ice, slush, and open water as they sought the Siberian land mass. Details of the topography they dealt with, their physical strength and will power all place the reader among the crew as they tried to overcome the hand that Mother Nature had dealt them as each day became a separate battle for survival. DeLong and his men were always up against the Arctic clock, when would the warm weather end? By August 1881, DeLong had to burn the sleds that pulled his boats, making the remainder of their journey that more difficult. By September 19, 1881 they were down to four days worth of provisions. The remainder of the story is one of human will against the elements. The three boats split up, never to be rejoined again. DeLong sends his two best men ahead to try and reach a settlement to find aid. It is when these two men reach Yakutsk, a Siberian village of 5000 people they are reunited with George Melville and a few men from the second boat. It is with the aid of the Russian Governor-General, George Tchernieff who states that unlike today, “that Russia has your back.” Melville launches an expedition to return to the ice to look for DeLong and his men and by March, 1882 he will uncover DeLong’s “ice journals,” maps, and other writings that were last dated in October, 1881. Needless to say, shortly thereafter the bodies of these men were found.
The conclusion that Sides reaches is that courage and loyalty dominated the mission of the USS Jeannette under the leadership of Captain DeLong. The capacity of George Melville’s commitment and identification with his captain and friend are compelling and explain his dogged determination to rescue DeLong and his crew once he reaches the safety of Yakutsk. Sides goes on to describe Melville’s commitment to DeLong’s widow, Emma and the mission that he would carry to his grave. Sides’ research and documentation is impeccable and there is little to question about his account as he has access to all of DeLong’s papers and other important materials. He presents a work of history that reads like the best adventure fiction that I have read in a long time, and the book should spark interest for all who seek a story about the triumph and loss of the human spirit.